Sisters journey from ‘Aardvark to Zucchini’


“Harry Potter” and Facebook can’t be the measuring stick for every success.

Success can mean to learn. To grow. To persevere. To finish.

“I think it’s just a really rewarding experience,” Joan Hentschel said. “I think there’s nothing cooler than seeing the book, you know?”

Added her sister, Suzanne Peyer, “I’d be OK selling a book a day.”

Hentschel and Peyer are the author and illustrator of “Aardvark to Zucchini Phonetic Alphabet Book,” which

Suzanne Peyer, center, and Joan Hentschel, right.

pledges to “teach a child to read in 20 days,” using a phonetics-based approach that incorporates visual cues to help children recognize and pronounce letter combinations.

“The book is intended to make those sounds look different so that the children or adult can tell by mere sight what sound it should make,” Hentschel said. “The notion is that you take those away eventually, and the children have learned on a very easy basis how to read, and eventually they won’t need those crutches.”

For the sisters, publishing a book has been its own education.

“I think we were naive,” Peyer laughed.

“(We thought), “We’re just going to do it!” her sister added.

Reality has looked more like this:

Early 2013: The concept of “Aardvark” was born during a sisterly conversation in which they both expressed interest in writing a children’s book.

Summer 2013: Hentschel wrote, Peyer illustrated. They met for weekly updates. They learned about book publishing … margin sizes, software, printing presses and binding.

And then life happened. Always a side project to the women’s full-time jobs as actuary and scientist, “Aardvark” took a back seat amid some life changes.

Summer 2016, “Aardvark” was published — after what the sisters called a “fiasco” of an initial printing in which the colors, a key component of their teaching method, weren’t printed consistently throughout the book.

“I think for me when there were problems with the printer, I got really upset. Not really upset, I just was, like, ‘OK, I’m too tired to work on this anymore,'” Peyer said, adding, “It was a real letdown for me. But now I’m happy with it.”

They carefully negotiated a reprint, with 3,000 copies of “Aardvark” produced.

By fall of 2016, they’d sold 150 books.

A year later, it’s about 300.

“It’s not a book a day, but maybe a book every other day, something like that,” Peyer said. “Which, when you think about it, it’s not that bad. Obviously, we’d like to have them flying off the shelves.”

As a business venture, educational literature is not an easy market to break into.

Typing “phonics” into the Amazon Books search bar yields 55,125 results.

That’s stiff competition as the sisters go from expo to expo, from dentist office to bookstore, searching for buyers.

“I definitely liked the process of making it rather than marketing it, and probably my sister would say the same thing,” Peyer said, then laughed.

As often happens, friendships prompted some of the earliest sales.

Erica Jensen of Des Moines, Iowa, learned about “Aadvark to Zucchini” three years ago because she works with Hentschel’s husband.

But after working through the book with her daughter, Ainsley, Jensen said she liked the book enough to buy several copies for friends.

Jensen said Ainsley is now 6 years old and a great reader.

“She and I give a lot of credit to that book because she was able at a young age, to see words, know words and then slowly learn how to put the words together,” she said.

Hentschel and Peyer have been frequently surprised during the marketing process.

They’ve heard that their young readers often choose “Aardvark” to read at bedtime, even though it’s not written in story form.

While a small show in their hometown yielded several sales, they barely made any during a Des Moines expo touted as the perfect place to sell the book.

The sisters don’t take a “no” personally.

“Our brother-in-law one time told me that, ‘You decide how you want to spend your energy, and if someone says no, don’t spend anymore energy on it. Move on, because the next one is there,’” Hentschel said. “In fact, it can take so much energy from me if you get down about it or if you try to go approach them again. You know, it’s just too much energy. But the next one’s likely to be the sale, or the one after that.”

The sequel to “Aardvark” may be series of 10 or so early-reader books next, possibly published as e-books.

But the women are waiting to see if “Aardvark” finds a larger audience.

“At the moment, I’m wondering, ‘Well, will we ever sell all these books?'” Peyer said. “And I don’t know. There’s that question mark.”

Said Hentschel, “We could try to go faster and invest more, but we’re taking, I think, a more calculated approach.”


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